Northern Rockies Wolf Protection Back in Court
MISSOULA, Montana, June 2, 2009 (ENS) - The removal of Endangered Species Act protections for gray wolves in Idaho and Montana is being challenged by legal action filed today by a coalition of 13 conservation groups.

On April 2, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service dropped the wolves from the Endangered Species list, finalizing an effort launched by the Bush administration to deprive the wolves of legal and habitat protections, allowing state management and hunting.

In delisting wolves, the Fish and Wildlife Service authorized Idaho and Montana to reduce their wolf populations from a current population of roughly 1,500 wolves to 200 to 300 wolves in the two states.

The Service believes that with approved state management plans in place in Montana and Idaho, all threats to the wolf population will be sufficiently reduced or eliminated in those states. Montana and Idaho will manage for more than 15 breeding pairs and 150 wolves per state.

Wolves will remain a protected species in Wyoming because a federal court previously ruled that Wyoming's hostile wolf-management scheme leaves wolves in "serious jeopardy."

Wolves in the Northern Rocky Mountains (Photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)
In this case, the nonprofit law firm Earthjustice represents Defenders of Wildlife, Natural Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club, Center for Biological Diversity, The Humane Society of the United States, Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance, Friends of the Clearwater, Alliance for the Wild Rockies, Oregon Wild, Cascadia Wildlands, Western Watersheds Project, Wildlands Project, and Hells Canyon Preservation Council.

The Fish and Wildlife Service originally announced the decision to delist the wolf in January, but the new administration decided to review the decision as part of an overall regulatory review when it came into office.

On March 6, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar affirmed the Fish and Wildlife Service decision to remove gray wolves from the list of threatened and endangered species in the western Great Lakes and the northern Rocky Mountain states of Idaho and Montana and parts of Washington, Oregon and Utah.

"The recovery of the gray wolf throughout significant portions of its historic range is one of the great success stories of the Endangered Species Act," Salazar said then. "When it was listed as endangered in 1974, the wolf had almost disappeared from the continental United States. Today, we have more than 5,500 wolves, including more than 1,600 in the Rockies."

"The successful recovery of this species is a stunning example of how the Act can work to keep imperiled animals from sliding into extinction," the secretary said. "The recovery of the wolf has not been the work of the federal government alone. It has been a long and active partnership including states, tribes, landowners, academic researchers, sportsmen and other conservation groups, the Canadian government and many other partners."

But the conservation groups say the decision to lift wolf protections comes as Yellowstone National Park wolves declined by 27 percent in the past year – one of the largest declines reported since wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone in 1995.

The northern Rockies wolf population has not achieved a level of connectivity between the greater Yellowstone, central Idaho, and northwest Montana areas that is essential to wolves' long-term survival, the groups say.

"We are disappointed that this early in the new administration, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar choose to ignore sound science and instead choose to pursue a piecemeal delisting plan for the northern Rockies gray wolf population," said Franz Camenzind of the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance, one of the plaintiff groups.

"It makes no sense to segment an already fragmented population with two different management plans. Taking away endangered species protection from wolves in Montana and Idaho while keeping Wyoming's wolves under federal protection completely ignores the best population and ecosystem science," said Camenzind.

"It is unfortunate that the Obama administration has adopted Bush-era legal views that count wolves as ‘recovered' even when they still only occupy less than five percent of their original range in our country," said Michael Robinson, conservation advocate for the Center for Biological Diversity. "Wolves are still endangered, and we believe the court will see through this smoke-and-mirrors act."

The challenged delisting decision is the second time in a year the federal government has removed protections for wolves in the northern Rocky Mountains. Conservation groups, represented by Earthjustice, successfully sued to get the protections reinstated in July 2008.

"We are disappointed the new administration has missed this opportunity to rethink the failed wolf persecution policies of the last eight years," said Jonathan Lovvorn, vice president and chief counsel for animal protection litigation with The Humane Society of the United States. "The federal government's efforts to strip wolves of all federal protection have been repeatedly struck down by the courts, and this latest rule is no more likely to succeed than the previous failed attempts."

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